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Epic: An Experiment In Arts Education

What are the arts for? What do they do?

These are loaded questions, implying that the arts should provide tangible benefits in order to justify their existence. But how do you quantify a string quartet? How can you take the measure of a new play? What is the replacement value of a "priceless" Vermeer or Van Dyck?

Questions about the value of the arts come into focus when we speak of arts education. In addition to providing intellectual and creative stimuli, arts education has been shown in several high-profile studies to improve students' overall academic performance. Perhaps this helps to explain why former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (hardly known for his art-for-art's-sake stance) invested heavily in arts education through Project "Arts Restoration Throughout the Schools" (Project A.R.T.S.). Another reason that the city supports arts education has been suggested by Giuliani's Commissioner for Cultural Affairs, Schuyler Chapin, who argues that such programming "creates future audiences and patrons for our wonderful theaters, concert halls and museums"--institutions that fuel the city's $12-billion cultural engine.

Created in 1997 under the auspices of Chancellor Rudy Crew, Project A.R.T.S. is an incentive program that encourages schools to rebuild their arts programs, which had been gutted in previous years. Under Project A.R.T.S, all of New York's 1100 schools became eligible for substantial funding to support arts instruction--whether through professional development, programming, or the purchase of equipment and resources. Individual school districts were given the choice of how to allocate the funds.

Since September 11, however, many schools' arts budgets have been frozen. The new city budget, passed at the end of December, eliminates $766 million in spending, including substantial cuts to cultural programs (although the City Council did manage to restore some of the mayor's proposed cuts). This will undoubtedly have an impact on school arts programs, as well as the 300 cultural organizations that offer their services to the city's schools, and depend upon such programs as an important revenue source.

The Manhattan-based Epic Theatre Center is fortunate in some ways; they have no pre-September 11 yardstick against which to measure their current financial health. They were in the first days of operation during the week of the World Trade Center attacks--just beginning to embark on their education program-- when the attacks threw their efforts into high gear. Fueled by the desire to "do something," the group of actors, directors, and writers--many among them experienced teaching artists--got together to brainstorm about how they might help the city's public schools deal with the fallout. "It was not like 'We've got to save the kids,' but 'We've got to create public forums,'" Epic's artistic director, Ron Russell, recalls. "If Epic had owned a space we'd have flung the doors open: 'Please come in, let's talk.' That's why we went right into the schools."

Epic's artists came up with a simple classroom exercise, a variation on an actor's probing into his or her character's motivations and desires. On September 14 they were in a classroom in I.S. 25, in Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city. They asked students to recall September 10, and then asked them to shout out answers to three questions--what they wanted, what they loved, and what they needed on that day. They then asked students to answer those questions in the present--with the knowledge of the World Trade Center attacks. Finally, they asked them to answer these questions as if it were a year later. The artists then conducted the students in creating a "word symphony," or group poem, from the responses.

Shaheen Vaaz, an actor in the group, recalls that the answers varied wildly; before 9/11, students wanted the usual things--no homework, shopping, chicken; after 9/11, "food stayed constant," Vaaz tells me, but now students added that they wanted the twin towers back, world peace, or bombs--in addition to chicken. "When I listen to kids talk about 9/11," Russell says, "they talk as if it happened somewhere else--I think what they're thinking of is that visual image"--of the planes striking the towers that played incessantly on television for weeks. "Theater, because it's based in an oral tradition, can open up experience, create a place for conversation to happen."

For an emerging theater like Epic, going into schools is a way to generate income and visibility. It's also a way to counter the predominance of a movie-and-television driven culture--to build support "not just for our theater, but the theater," as Russell puts is. Epic created the "Antigone-in-Progress" project to involve students in every aspect of play production--research and discussion, writing and adapting, rehearsal and performance. First, Epic's actors go to classrooms and perform a new translation and adaptation of Sophocles 5th-century text, in which the Chorus's traditional role as commentator is replaced by an on-the-scene reporter, who solicits responses from the students as the clash between King Creon and the recalcitrant Antigone plays out. Students then spend several weeks working with teaching artists to develop their own, contemporary version of the play, which they then perform with Epic's actors.

"We wanted to figure out how to involve civic education," Vaaz says of the project. The central conflict of Antigone--between the individual and the group--fits into the logic of a classroom, where students are asked to conform to the needs of the class as a whole, and submit to the teacher's authority. In considering how to resolve Antigone and Creon's conflicting priorities, students are encouraged to think about compromise, and about their own roles as individuals in their societies--the classroom, their neighborhood, the city. "At first," Vaaz tells me, "students are always for Antigone, saying, 'Yeah, I'd want to bury my brother too.'" The Epic actors try to "un-black-and-white" the conflict by asking the students if they'd still side with Antigone if her brother had done something very bad--what if he were a terrorist, for example? Students are encouraged to come up with their own notion of a Chorus, whether that be a rap group, the media, or a group of their peers.

At Epic's education fundraiser in early December, a group of sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders from the East Harlem School presented scenes from their Antigone, including a potent staging of the battle between Oedipus' two sons, who kill each other, Sophocles records, "in a twofold blow." With far more decorum than might be expected from young boys given permission to fight, the two actors face off and slay one another, collapsing to the stage in a beautifully synchronized , slow-motion fall. An imposing figure--a character of the students' own invention--walks on and surveys the carnage. "I am the 'Eye,'" she says, "I see the past and the future." It's an amazingly theatrical moment, by any standards.

Epic has survived its first few months on income from ticket sales, school programs, and donations of $100 or less. They have been able to bring "Antigone-in-Progress" to four public schools, and hope to do more. They received many letters of thanks from teachers and students after their work in classrooms in September, and have also won the support of two luminaries in the education reform movement--Jonathan Kozol, a writer and educator, and Eric Booth, an actor, director, and Educator, who argues in favor of arts Education in his essay on the College Board Web site, "Art in the Every Day: Can It Change our Schools?":

"In challenging the standard thinking of the place of art in schools, we need to describe the 'skills of art' as the essential learning skills, capacities that underlie the 3Rs and curriculum material. These 'basic basics' include: intrinsic motivation to learn, the capacity to concentrate, the ability to make connections between and across subjects, confidence in your own judgment, the ability to respond effectively, the facility to use and understand metaphor, and the yearning for 'more.' These learning essentials are developed in the arts and express themselves in the works of art we recognize and value, as well as in other media of life (our work, our families, our leisure time, our everyday routines) that we usually overlook for their creative potential. Thus, to truly wrestle with change in our schools, perhaps we need to see -- and implement -- the arts as a fundamental, rather than a peripheral, focus for learning."

$50 Million Fund For The Arts

I reported last month on "Going on with the Show," the Center for an Urban Future's November 19 survey of how the city's arts groups have fared since September 11. The survey concluded that, with drops in ticket sales and funding, "nonprofit arts organizations are entering their rockiest period in over 30 years." On the day after the report's publication, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced the creation of a $50 million fund to assist those arts and cultural organizations that have been directly affected by the World Trade Center attacks. William G. Bowen, the president of the Foundation, expressed his desire that Mellon's actions will prompt other funders to support the city's museums, libraries, and performing arts organizations "that so powerfully help to define New York City's special qualities." Some of the $50 million will benefit the city's parks, which, in the words of Mellon Financial Vice President, Dennis Sullivan, "served such an important role in the immediate aftermath of the September events."


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